Increasing competition from upstart networks and tech savvy millennials and even boomers, turning more than ever to streaming original programming and binge viewing their old favorites, have proven tough competition for the country’s leading networks. However, networks targeting African American markets are bucking that trend.
Remember television before BET. You have to be a senior citizen to remember the days when African Americans would pick up their phone to call family and friends to let them know that someone Black was on TV. Then post the Blaxplotation movie era of the 70s and the introduction of the Black situation comedy, African Americans were split on the value of the Black Entertainment Television Network when it hit the air in January 1980.
Most of BET’s early entertainment consisted of music videos, reruns of old Black situation comedies and some original programming. For a while, the network introduced some original news programming, but eventually settled in as an alternative to MTV, by running mostly rap videos. Although BET was popular with a young Black audience, the company lost its adult African-American audience and picked up a host of critics who denounced the station’s sexism and anti-intellectualism.
When BET founder Robert Johnson sold the network to Viacom, a large media conglomerate, in 2000, even the network’s critics were disappointed. Even though they had hoped for much more from the network, the sale of the nation’s only black-owned network was seen as a step backwards. However, four years later the airwaves welcomed TV One, followed by Bounce TV in 2011, Aspire in 2012 and Revolt a year later. Along the way there have been other network successes and failures, and from all indications, there are more networks to come. Finally, African Americans have a selection of viable options to meet the community’s growing demand for authentic programming that they can identify with.
In a time when other networks are losing viewers, these networks are experiencing double digit growth. True, it’s easier to grow your numbers when you’re starting at the bottom, but authorities agree, this positive trend is more than a fluke. With African Americans watching 37% more television than any other group – more than seven hours per day – there is a great need for African-American programming. While mainstream networks have made inroads toward reaching African-American viewers, according to Nielsen, Black networks produce programming that account for 76% of the top-indexing programs for Black adults.
Although it is no longer Black-owned, BET remains the leading “Black” network. With Viacom, now CBS, ownership, the network is strategically placed to reach 86 million households and is the 37th rank network in America. However, despite the station’s large reach, it is one of the few Black networks that’s losing viewership. Last year the network’s viewership was down 14%.
Possibly not to compete with Viacom-owned network MTV, the network has abandoned its video format. The network’s current programming consist mostly of older Black sitcoms and movies with only a limited amount of original programming. Entering its 4th season is “Being Mary Jane,” a show about a successful reporter who’s looking for love in all the wrong places. This summer the network offered “Chasing Destiny” a show about Destiny Child’s member Kelly Rowland trying to assemble a new girl group. Set to start this month are two new shows, The Quad, a series about fictional Historically Black College Georgia A&M, and a mini-series “New Edition” the chronicles the journey of the 80s boy group by the same name.
The two new offerings may help, but experts suggests the new editions will do little to reverse the downward trend at a network where the corporate owners seem to have little interest in making the investment needed to turn the tide.
While the Oprah Winfrey Network is Black-owned, it’s impossible to find any reference to the network as “African-American.” network. However, we decided to include it in this story because of its owner and because of its growing mix of African-American dramas and sitcoms. Owned by the former daytime talk-show host, OWN debuted on Jan 1, 2011 in approximately 80 million homes, replacing the Discovery Health Channel. In viewership, the network ranks at 41, below BET.
The network got off to a rough start, but after a remix, the network has settled in on a mix of original programs, specials, documentaries, and acquired movies. The network’s turnaround can be contributed in part to its late 2012 affiliation with Tyler Perry. OWN partner with Perry to provide it with scripted television programming.
One of Perry's series, “The Haves and the Have Nots” has consistently posted very successful ratings and has set a record on OWN, providing the network with its highest ratings to date. With the Perry on board, the network continued to demonstrate double digit growth in viewership. No dummy, Winfrey ordered more Perry shows and the success keeps growing, with the Perry shows providing the network its biggest draw. In addition to “The Haves and the Have Nots,” Perry shows on OWN include: “If Loving You Is Wrong,” “Love Thy Neighbor” and “For Better Or Worse.” With the edition of hit “Queen Sugar,” also sporting a predominately Black cast, OWN may not be a Black Network, but it’s beginning to take on a Black hue.
TV One is owned by Radio One, a company started by single, Black mother Kathy Hughes in 1980. Hughes was able to capitalize on the revenue from the radio network that she grew from one to 55 stations, to fund the startup of TV One. Somewhere along the way, she entered a partnership with Comcast. Last year, she was able to buy out Comcast’s approx. 48% interest, which restored Radio One’s ownership interest in the network to 99.6%.
The network, which hit the airwaves in January 2004, has a mix of programming targeting African-American adults. The programs include a broad mix of original lifestyle and entertainment-oriented series, documentaries, movies, concert performances and reruns of Black sitcoms. The network is available to approximately 57 million pay television households or about 50% of households with at least one television set in the United States.
Hits for the network have included “R&B Divas, Atlanta,” and now the new spinof Hollywood Divas,” reality shows that cover African-American singing stars. “Here We Go Again,” which debuted last year, follows the Walker women and their unlucky number 16.
In addition, in a move the network manager said was designed to “defy expectations” the network announced it will also premiere a whopping 26 original movies this year and the networks first-ever scripted drama. Add to that, the big coup of nabbing rebroadcast rights to Fox’s popular series “Empire,” and the networks popular news show NewsOne with Roland Martin, and the network has clearly established itself as “the” place to go for an adult African-American audience – that is, if you have the dollars to spend on an expanded cable package.
Bounce, which launched in 2011, features a mix of original and acquired programming geared toward Africans between 25 and 54. The network, headquartered in Atlanta, is primarily owned by former US Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King II, and Andrew “Bo” Young II. The group also include Rob Hardy and Will Packer, co-founder of Rainforest Films, an African-American production company.
In a different approach, Bounce has expanded through affiliation with existing broadcast television stations in markets across the country through digital subchannels. In Wichita, the network is affiliated with off cable station KGPT 18.3 and in Kansas City with KCMO 38.2. This works out great for households without cable, but it does considerably limit the networks reach. In some markets, the network is available on digital tiers of cable providers, often at the discretion of a local affiliate. In Wichita, Bounce is available on AT&T Uverse in Kansas City on Comcast, Time Warner, Vyve and WOW.
In addition to airing older sitcoms, “A Different World” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” the network has introduced a number of original programs. The networks first original show was “Family Time,” a show about a family who relocates to the suburbs after hitting the lottery. Some of the other successful shows for the network include “Mann and Wife” feature real life couple David and Tamela Mann, “Off the Chain,” a series featuring individual comedy specials and “Saints and Sinners,” a drama based in a church full of lust, greed and deeply ingrained secrets.
Currently, TV One ranks 72nd in American network viewership.
Aspire, which entered the market in February 2012, was the first of 10 new cable networks launched by Comcast Corp. as part of its merger with NBC Universal. California Rep. Maxine Waters wage a fierce battle to hold up the Federal Communications Commission’s approval of the merger until Comcast agreed to create 10 new networks, at least eight of which would be run by minority businessmen, to “diversity the cable landscape.”
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a longtime friend and donor to Waters’ campaigns, quickly applied and was given control of the first network. The award hasn’t been without controversy, especially after Johnson promptly turned over all managerial control of the network to GMC (now UP) TV, a 100% White-owned company. Add to that the station’s initially poor program line-up of 1970s era Black sitcoms, and those in the loop were really calling foul.
Things are looking a little better at Aspire, Johnson appears to be paying more attention to the network and even hosts a show “Magic in the Making,” where the business mogul has “personal and honest” conversations with African-American newsmakers. Other original programming now in the networks lineup includes “ABFF Independent,” a weekly two hour show that highlights independent Black films and documentaries from emerging artists, “Butter and Brown,” a cooking show, “Bama Style,” a reality series featuring the Alabama State University Might Marching Hornets. He network also features a drama series “Lincoln Heights” about a police officer who moves his family back to the inner city neighborhood where he grew up and “Exhale,” a View type talk show. The network is also widely known for airing HBCU basketball and football games.
Launched in October 2013, Revolt is another station spawned out of the Comcast/NBC merger. This time, the handoff was to Hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. A music network, Revolt’s target audience is 16 to 25 year olds of both sexes – a demographic often considered too crafty or indigent to pay for cable. With that in mind, the network relies heavily on other platforms, immediately reversing shows from the network back to internet video and into the social media fishbowl.
The network viewership is still too low to become a Nielsen-rated network, which means its popularity is impossible to gauge, but with its placement on Time Warner and Comcast in 46 of the top 50 U.S. markets, the network is available to 25 million households.
“It’s possible to survive in the music space, but it has to be done right. There’s a more limited audience, so (Revolt” will have to drill in deep and really connect with viewers,” said TV industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “What’s helpful is that Revolt has a brand-name (boss) Comb’s brand connection with customers gives them a lot of potential.”
“Andy Schuon, the network’s co-founder and president,” is the former head of programming at MTV. Schuon, who presided over MTV’s gradual shift from music programming to shows, says his old employer’s abdication of the music video throne has given Revolt the opportunity to seize the vacancy.
Big on the station’s list of programming is “Revolt Presents” a unique and diverse series of specials that range from coverage of events like the Essence Festival to “Everybody Eats,” a special about Cash Money artists who to feed the hungry at Thanksgiving.
A big hit for the network is “Breakfast Club,” the streaming of the popular morning hip-hop radio show five days a week. A new addition to the network is “Drink Champs,” a pickup by the network of a popular online podcast. The show brings together Queens rapper N.O.R.E. and Miami hip-hop pioneer DR EFN for a weekly talk session. The show features special guests like 50 cent and Rick Ross, who come on to tell stories about the old and new days of hip-hop. Drinks are consumed, thus the title.
Centric, the former BET J network, is the 102nd ranked network and with Viacom’s power, even though the network has a fairly low readership, it is still positioned to reach 52 million households. The network bills itself as “the first network designed for Black women.” Just on Comcast Xfinity and Charter Specturm, the Impact Network has fairly limited reach. The African-American owned and operated Christian television network, includes a line-up of more than a dozen television ministries: from TD Jakes, Creflor Dollar, Paul Morton, and Joel Osteen, just to name a few.
We’ve probably missed a few networks, but expect for the number to grow. As part of the commitment pledge during the NBC merger, Comcas, has just announced it is accepting proposals for two substantially African-American owned, independent networks that it will launch in select Comcast markets by January 2019. In case you’re interested, proposals are due by March 15.